Influence and messaging, the Zelenskyy effect

by Philip Ingram MBE

The headline recently appeared in the Daily Mail saying “Zelensky declares social media WAR: President launches campaign telling the world to demand politicians act by swamping the internet with signs reading #ArmUkraineNow amid Russian assault on the Donbas.”  In March President Zelensky delivered a historic address to the House of Commons that was beamed into the chamber via a live feed invoking Churchill in only a way a seasoned orator could.  To the US Congress he invoked memories of Pearl Harbour, to the German Bundestag, memories of the Soviet days splitting Germany into East and West and the Berlin Airlift.

In his address to every country and institution his messaging has been personalised, focused and expertly targeted. However, it is not just his addresses to parliaments, congress, institutions that have an effect but his regular phone calls with world leaders and his nightly address to the Ukrainian people but also the world. Messaging, the power of words is at the core of his political and military defence and this is something we must understand an learn from quickly.  President Zelenskyy is delivering a masterclass in the use of information in crisis.

However, the public master class we are seeing is reflected in an understanding of manipulation in the widest sense of the word that has underpinned Ukraine’s transition from a former Soviet State to one courting EU and NATO membership such that Russia felt compelled to act. Russia’s own information campaign is straight out of their books of враньё (vranyo), telling a lie without expecting to be believed, but told often enough through as many outlets as possible and control the truth through маскировка (maskirovka), literally masking, propaganda to many the lie becomes the reality.

Putin, usually through his foreign minister, Lavrov, frequently masks his intentions in an inflammatory way by stoking up the nuclear threat, knowing it will panic different countries in different ways. The statements we have heard the Russian Ambassador to the UN, Nebenzya deliver, beggar belief in their warping of reality, but Russia doesn’t care.  What is good about Russia’s information war is their maskirovka and vranyo are so obvious to the free world. In Russia where the state has total control over all media, it is a different matter.

Their use of information is to reinforce their own beliefs, groupthink, and aimed domestically with the odd poorly aimed snipe internationally. An example of the latter is when Putin made his first nuclear threat, he said it was because of comments Liz Truss, the UK Foreign Secretary made. He saw this as a way of worsening a perceived post Brexit rift between the UK and EU and in particular the Germans, he ignored the reality that the international community was coming together as never seen in recent years.

So where did Ukraine come from in the information sphere, to properly understand their development I talked to a former senior Foreign Office official and ambassador, (not to Ukraine) but someone who was involved with many interactions with the Ukrainians before Russia’s first invasion in 2014. Ukraine had been sending officers to the UK Advanced Command and Staff Course at the Joint Services Command and Staff College since at least 1997 and were trained in complex combined arms and joint operations.  They had been courting NATO countries and the UK for many years before then.

Scale and capability is important to understand.  The Ukrainians have one of the largest armed forces in region apart from Russia. They have at least 6 times as many tanks and APCs as UK and an Army c126K, with 900K reservists. They have some serious military capability and the Foreign Office official said in visiting Ukraine he was at the “Largest live fire power display I have ever seen, including major Close Air Support, battlefield breaching, manned APCs para dropped from Antonov’s.”  The “so what?” from this is Western military support in terms of Armour offered from a numbers perspective is almost militarily irrelevant in terms of its scale; it is all about the message it sends and locking the Wests involvement into Ukraine’s conflict.

“The approach by Ukraine pre 2014 to diplomacy was aways to try to get signature to agreements tying us to support to Ukraine of similar nature to NATO commitments and of course support for NATO membership.” The Foreign Office Official went on to add, “Ukrainian delegations arrived for official Ministerial visit to Secretary of State with agreements for signature despite clear agreement before visit that we did not intend to sign yet another support agreement with Ukraine,” the tactic of trying to bounce the government into different positions was commonplace.

He added, “On official visits to Ukraine, the general tenor/approach was very Soviet, a massive reliance on bulk consumption of vodka morning noon and night, raunchy entertainment at official events as well as regularly being implicitly offered female staff as prostitutes,” as was ever, influence and manipulation was conducted the old Soviet way.

Since 2014 the Ukrainians have worked hard on improving their approach, moving from the very Soviet to the more western approach, but not forgetting what worked in the past. President Zelenskyy is giving global leaders a masterclass in leadership under pressure. The messaging, the influence operations he is conducting are all aimed at getting support from NATO the EU and the wider international community, tying them into the outcome of the war, so that Ukraine is not left on its own and the conditions are set for as rapid a rebuild of the country and its welcoming into other international institutions, as quickly as possible.

He has successfully courted the international community to cooperate in a way that has not only helped and continues to help Ukraine but has also brought international organisations and alliances closer together than they have been for many years. His words, his messaging, his actions have brough billions of dollars of aid in financial and equipment terms, he has pushed the boundaries of what the EU and NATO have ever done before, he has united a dividing world and refocused some interesting polarisations. What we have seen from President Zelenskyy is true effects-based influence and messaging.

The effects he is achieving are seen domestically where his relationship with the West maintains hope for the people of Ukraine. The effect he is achieving internationally is an increasing perception that Ukraine is fighting to protect the wider international community. He has achieved this in a very careful and subtle way. His actions, methodologies and achievements show a real lesson in the information sphere that the West needs to learn from.

We must ask why the West ignored genocide in Africa with the Tutus and Hutsis, why the International Community didn’t respond to Russia’s first invasion if Ukraine in 2014 but has responded now, and the answer, or a major part of the answer is the Zelenskyy effect.  We must learn how to do this given the growing importance of information and messaging, we must take a leaf out of Zelenskyy’s book.

Philip INGRAM MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence and NATO Planner and is available for comment.